October 7, 2008
The Subliminal Slam-Dunk
By Mary Lyon
I was going to start out by calling the second Presidential Candidates' Debate between Barack Obama and John McCain a "running out the clock" affair for Obama. Basically a draw - no big wins or losses, with an edge to Obama because he didn't give up any ground and McCain didn't gain any. But then I kept watching after the debate itself ended. And I know who won hands down. It was all in the body language and other nonverbals, and it put Obama decisively over the top, because it said more about the character issue for the two candidates and their wives than anyone's verbiage had just done.
The debate itself had just wrapped and the principals began to mill about on the floor, shaking hands, thanking moderator Tom Brokaw, congratulating each other and their loved ones. I watched as the two contenders and their wives started making the rounds of the nonaligned voters who made up the audience, and more handshaking ensued. Except for Cindy McCain. She trailed around just a couple of steps behind her husband, hands firmly clasped behind her. Perhaps she didn't intend to convey this, but it still evoked an aura of a sheltered aristocrat who doesn't want to touch or be touched by the hoi polloi. Then, the McCains vanished altogether, while Barack and Michelle Obama hung around to shake every last hand. It struck me then and there that Obama had won over the whole room of undecideds, simply by doing that.
During the debate Obama held his ground and even scored a point or two, countering McCain's attempts to portray him as "green behind the ears" on national security issues with the recklessness that comes from someone singing "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" or threatening to annihilate North Korea. Obama cleverly hijacked the "my opponent just doesn't understand" refrain by John McCain by saying there were indeed some things he didn't understand - such as why we had to go to war with a country that hadn't attacked us.
The most memorable gesture by John McCain, and I felt it was a very off-putting one, was a riff off of the last debate when he found it impossible to look at his opponent. This time, McCain made more of an effort to do so, but twice referred to Obama as a thing rather than a person. He wondered aloud - who voted for some energy bill loaded with all kinds of "goodies." Answer: "that one," gesturing over at Obama without looking in his direction. Later, something similar when he again swept his hand toward Obama without looking at him, saying "this is the most liberal big-spending record in the United States Senate." At best, odd. At worst, dismissive, demeaning, and dehumanizing.
Then again, I suppose we should all be grateful that there was no mention of the infamous William Ayers, whom Sarah Palin is now desperately trying to surgically attach to Barack Obama, like some twisted sort of domestic-terrorist Siamese twin. And that's telling, too. I gather from the recent deterioration of the campaign narrative into such vicious personal attacks that perhaps the McCain/Palin campaign thinks the only key to victory is to play really dirty now. I'm sure conservatives were hoping this would come up in the debate so they could further smear Obama and knock him off his game. But I suspect it's a lot harder to deliver hateful lines like that against your opponent when he's standing there just a couple of yards away, and you're both surrounded by impressionable civilians and other assorted non-combatants. Did McCain lose his nerve, or decide to pull his punches a little? Or did he finally discover the high road - well, after a fashion?
Granted some of these are fairly minor details. But when there's a debate like this, where nobody scored a game-changer or a knock-out punch, and you can count the money shots on the fingers of one hand, we're left with splitting hairs and panning for small nuggets, whether they're crumbs of gold or mouse droppings. It's the subliminal stuff, the visceral stuff, that makes an impact and sends a message.
The impression has already been made, for example, about meanness. For me it started during the Republican Convention, especially on Sarah-and-Rudy Night. It has accelerated ever since, underscored just lately by Palin in particular, with her Bizarro-Mary-Poppins bag of insults and winky, chirpy, borderline-racial slurs. It was underscored in the first debate in which McCain appeared unwilling even to acknowledge Obama's presence in his field of vision. McCain's two attempts at jokes on this second round fell utterly flat. One awkwardly targeted Tom Brokaw - as the least likely to be chosen as McCain's future Treasury Secretary, and another, a snide "I'LL answer the question (snicker-snicker)", implied that somehow Obama hadn't done so. As Sarah Palin herself would have said - "yours was a bad joke, too, 'cause nobody got it."
I counted one flag pin between the two contenders - on Obama's lapel, not McCain's, same as last time they sparred. I counted at least 15 times in which the now familiar "my friends" was invoked, but, surprisingly, nowhere did our friend "maverick" rear his (or her) head. The pundit class and campaign insiders had long ago given McCain a leg up going into this "town hall format" debate, because he'd done so many and it's part of his comfort zone by now, but I saw little evidence of this. He toddled around the room with a slight stiffness, probably owing to his old war wounds, while Obama appeared at ease and at home. McCain looked sickly and anemic, while Obama seemed more vigorous. McCain sounded slightly erratic and excitable while Obama was far more steady and presidential. And when you consider what kind of messes and stresses one of them will face next January, such an otherwise marginal detail starts to carry a lot more weight.
Superstition prevents me from declaring Barack Obama the winner much beyond this third-in-a-series-of-four campaign jousts. But it seems to me something in this campaign started to solidify for Obama after this debate, putting John McCain that much closer to crossing a bridge to nowhere.